The Wilder Aisles 

Janice Wilder has been a legend of Sydney bookselling for over 40 years.

For some time I have been fascinated by bees

Gleebooks Bookshop - Friday, July 19, 2013


For some time, I have been fascinated by bees. Especially the folklore which surrounds these small, but very important creatures—and I had long heard of the importance of 'telling the bees'. They need to be told important things that have happened in the home of the beekeeper, especially a death in the family. Also, I knew that bees needed to be made aware of changes, say in ownership of the hives if it meant moving the hives & other changes happening in their surroundings. Of course we all know the importance of bees and what they mean for the supply of the food we eat. So it may come as no surprise that my book of the month, maybe my book of the year, is Telling the Bees by Peggy Hesketh. This is Hesketh's debut novel and I think, for a first attempt, she has done a very good job. The story starts with elderly beekeeper Albert Honig going out early one morning to see to his bees. He is concerned that his neighbours, fellow beekeepers Claire & Hilda, are not up and about, and goes to their house to see why they aren't tending their hives. What he finds comes as a great shock. Claire and Hilda have been murdered during what looks like a burglary gone wrong. Albert, a mild, quiet man, who has never married, spends his time with the bees or reading philosophy. The product of a strict religious upbringing, in his old age he finds it difficult to cope with modern life & has more or less retreated into his own world. But with the murder comes the outside world in the form of Detective Grayson. Grayson is at first impatient with Albert and his bees, but is gradually drawn into Albert's world. At the beginning of each chapter there are little facts about the life of bees, and Albert's love of philosophy is apparent from the quotes throughout the book from his favourite philosophers. I found the bee stuff very interesting, and the story of the relationship between Albert and Claire, with all the missed opportunities, very sad. As he comes to discover the truth about Claire's life, he has to come to terms with painful truths, and learn to put the past to rest.
 I thought I had read the next author I want to write about. But when I picked up a copy of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, and looked at the author's other titles, I realised I hadn't read any. So I started with his. I must say although I read this book, I can't say I enjoyed it. It is very well written, but most distressing. It's a story of terrible family cruelty & neglect. Esme is the not so attractive difficult younger sister of Kitty who is pretty and biddable. Nevertheless, it is Esme that the young rich man falls forĀ­—but Esme's parents are not having this, so Esme is made to disappear. Many years later, Iris Lockhart, who runs a second-hand clothes shop in London, receives a phone call from a psychiatric institution to say that it is closing and her great-aunt Esme needs to be collected. This is a great shock to Iris, as her grandmother Kitty has always maintained that she was an only child. Iris is horrified—what should she do with this old woman who has been locked away for so long? It is unthinkable that she should take her to her own place—and not just because she is fending off her married boyfriend's attempts at commitment. How stable is this long-lost great-aunt, how safe will Iris be? The book is described as a Gothic novel, but I'm not sure that is an apt description. It is certainly haunting and the story stayed with me for a long time—not least because although this is fiction, I feel sadly sure this sort of thing happens in real life.  The second book by O'Farrell I want to mention is After You'd Gone. This, although again sad, is not as upsetting as Esme's story. Alice Raikes, who after an accident—or maybe a suicide attempt—is comatose in hospital. During this time, she slides between different levels of consciousness with her past life revealed in flashbacks. This story of three generations of women, their relationships and their secrets is both moving and gripping. I found the book as unputdownable as the publisher's blurb claimed. I love finding a new author and knowing that there are plenty more books up their sleeve to read.  And best of all, when I have finished her backlist there is a new title I have to look forward to. This is February 2013's Instructions for a Heatwave & it looks just as good. From the book's jacket: 'Robert Riordan tells his wife he is going around the corner to buy a newspaper. He doesn't come back.' Can't wait! I like talking about novelists who I feel are neglected. As I said, it is always good to find someone new to read, especially when it is someone as good as Maggie O'Farrell. 
And I'll just mention the new Ruth Rendell, which I don't think needs a big review, as Ms Rendell and Inspector Wexford have been around for a while. In No Man's Nightingale, Wexford is brought out of retirement to assist the new chief Mike Burden in the investigation of the murder of Sarah Hussain, the unpopular Anglican Priest. Sarah is a woman of colour, and a single mother. Three strikes against her from the start. She is also a modern priest, favouring the alternate service book, welcoming all to her church. The retired Wexford is deep into Gibbon's Rise & Fall of the Roman Empire and is at first reluctant to have anything to do with the case, but, of course, he ends up being instrumental in bringing the culprit to justice. I don't think this is Rendell's best, but it is still enjoyable in the tradition of the English detective novel. One for all her fans, but also not a bad place to start if you haven't read her before.

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